Following on from my previous post about where the tuition fees row leaves the Welsh Liberal Democrats in relation to their party’s leadership, it’s worth highlighting a flurry of comments and articles that may shed a little more light on what could be going on inside the party.
Most of the party defines itself as being ‘centre-left’, so how did the party end up so badly split on an issue which has previously united it? This split stems not just from a different approach to fees, but from a wider division between centre-left and centre-right liberals.
Those on the right generally favour privatised and marketised policies. On the left, we really do take the view that we are all in it together. We seek democratic and localised policies and yes, we do generally favour higher spending and more redistribution.
When Grayson talks about “most of the party” you can certainly include the Welsh party which regularly defines itself as centre-left and never more so than over the course of the last week.
Richard Grayson pops up in this week’s Spectator too. In the paper version of the magazine, Political editor James Forsyth puts him at the centre of an already-established “internal resistance campaign”:
When the Lib Dem left saw the direction that the party was heading in under Clegg’s leadership, they decided to take over the committees. They knew that they could use them to wage a policy insurgency against the leadership.
Grayson is quoted as saying that ‘the social liberal wing of the party realised that it needed to get organised’ after the 2008 conference decision to drop the commitment to a 50p higher tax rate. Forsyth returns to his theme today when he talks about ‘the Lib Dem insurgency.’
But in his Spectator article, Forsyth argues that Nick Clegg, elected leader by 20,000 members, has more of a mandate than the Federal Policy Committee formerly chaired by Grayson, which was elected by just 1,731 members. And he urges Clegg to assert his authority:
Those closest to Clegg are telling him that to turn the Liberal Democrats into a credible party of government he must reform these party structures. Clegg needs his own version of Blair’s ‘Partnership into Power’, the reforms that broke the stranglehold of the left over the Labour party.
As one Lib Dem minister puts it, the current arrangements ‘don’t allow the leader to lead.’ For that reason, they must go. No party that aspires to be a party of government can bind the hands of its leader.
Rounding up what he calls a grim set of Sunday papers for Nick Clegg, Forsyth’s Spectator colleague Peter Hoskins says that ‘this particular error has cast the Lib Dems into their most difficult internal dilemma since May.’
So where do the Welsh Liberal Democrats fit into all this? They exist as an autonomous organisation within a federal party. In today’s edition of BBC Wales’ Politics Show, Welsh leader Kirsty Williams says she was pleased her MPs had honoured their pledge on tuition fees and said that was ‘the beauty of devolution’ (in party as well as government terms). She said she doesn’t ‘expect to dictate to federal colleagues’ nor does she expect to be dictated to.
However, as I suggested in my previous post, voters may not make the federalism distinction. The question raised by that post was, how do the Welsh Lib Dems get the message across that they take a different approach to their ministers in the Westminster government? Let me add a further two questions.
If there is such a thing as an internal ‘insurgency’, what is the role of Welsh Liberal Democrats? They certainly share the views of those who are said to be resisting moves to the right. And if Nick Clegg does assert his authority over the ultra-democratic structures of his party, where will that leave a proudly distinct Welsh party?